tampabay.com

Third party to scrutinize Redington Beach clerk

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
Published June 8, 2005


REDINGTON BEACH - Accusations from a former employee against Town Clerk Larry Bittner will be investigated, but the town will not do it, the commission decided Monday night.

"We have to do something in the best interest of the town," said Mayor Bob Fountaine, who earlier said he thought the employee might be considering suing the town over Bittner's alleged actions.

When Bittner objected to a suggestion that several former commissioners be drafted to handle the investigation, the commission decided to seek a human resources professional or company to conduct the investigation.

"They (former commissioners) are too close to me. I interact with them almost every day. I'm the one who the allegations were made against and I object to it," Bittner said.

Whoever is picked to handle the investigation will work under the guidance of the town's attorney, Dominic Amadio, who stressed that his role will be restricted to ensuring the process is handled legally.

"I wouldn't have a vote," he said. "I would only be there to make sure they don't do anything wrong."

Several times Fountaine stopped commissioners from discussing the issues raised by former Assistant Town Clerk Nancy Eiginhouse, who unexpectedly resigned last week.

She charged in a resignation letter that she did not "feel safe" working with Bittner. She said she could no longer work for the town because of what she described as Bittner's "hostile demeanor" and "temper" against her and residents.

"This is unfortunate," said Commissioner Leslie Peck-Epstein. "It's important to weigh the facts of the story. It's basic HR policy to assess if the claim is valid or invalid. This is going to take an investigation to get the facts."

Dorothy Conley, a longtime resident, asked why Eiginhouse resigned. "There are questions that need to be answered," she told the commission.

Fountaine said residents would get a full report when the investigation is complete.

Several residents strongly support Bittner.

Beth Evans, a member of the town's Finance Committee, said she has worked closely with him for years.

"He has been a great asset to the fiscal process," she wrote in an e-mail to the mayor.

"The fact that the former assistant clerk did not bring matters to anyone's attention but chose to first resign may indicate more issues than meets the eye."

Dennis and Nancy Griffin wrote a letter describing their interactions with Bittner at Town Hall. "In ALL of these cases, we observed Mr. Bittner as being polite, knowledgeable and extremely professional," they said. "We cannot believe these accusations . . . Mr. Bittner is a hard working town clerk worthy of both praise and appreciation!"

In another letter supporting Bittner, Ken and Donna Ford, 16-year residents, wrote: "We do elieve that Larry has been anything but professional and a real asset to our town. We are lucky to have him ... and hope that nothing will happen to cause him to leave."

Much of the commission's discussion centered on when and how to find a replacement for Eiginhouse, whom Bittner called "a bad hire," noting that she "lasted only four months."

Peck-Epstein questioned whether the town should fill the assistant clerk position before completing its investigation of the charges against Bittner.

Eiginhouse was hired by the commission in January after eight months of searching and reviewing more than a hundred resumes.

With her departure, Fountaine said Bittner is "buried" with work and needs help.

The commission will seek a qualified person to work on a temporary basis while it advertises the vacancy. At least one resident has sent in a resume for the job.

"I consider this an emergency situation," said Bittner, who strongly urged the commission not to hire a temporary replacement from an agency.

"We have a pressing need to get the help I deserve."